By Ray Sherman and Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Malaysia’s ruling UMNO dropped several of the prime minister’s supporters from its list of election candidates, with analysts saying the move indicates that corruption-tainted party chief Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is taking full control ahead of this month’s national polls.
A corruption trial has prevented Zahid from being named as prime minister or its choice for PM in the Nov. 19 general election, but the list shows him axing some lawmakers who support current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob amid divisions in the United Malays National Organization, according to analysts.
“Zahid is showing off his power,” Lau Zhe Wei, a political science professor from International Islamic University Malaysia, told BenarNews.
“Although he is not in the cabinet and the only party president who is not a prime minister, that does not matter because when it comes to the elections, ultimately it will be his signature that will seal the deal.”
Late on Tuesday, Zahid announced that 160 candidates from the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition would contest the election from peninsular Malaysia. The candidates for Sabah, a Malaysian state in Borneo, are expected to be announced in due course.
The list for peninsular Malaysia included 103 candidates from UMNO, 43 from the Malaysian Chinese Association, 10 from the Malaysian Indian Congress and four from other Barisan-friendly parties. Veteran parliamentarians and Ismail Sabri loyalists, such as Annuar Musa and Shahidan Kasim, were not on the list.
Zahid said in his speech announcing the candidates that one of the criteria in choosing a candidate was loyalty.
“There were a few principles that we prioritized in selecting the candidates. Barisan Nasional prioritized loyalty – those who will hold the trust given by the people and will not violate it,” he said.
“[Those who] will serve the people and forge good ties with all segments of the community to better serve the community for the betterment of the people. They represent values such as loyalty and service to voters.”
The reference to loyalty showed that Zahid was taking “revenge” against those who supported Ismail Sabri over him, analyst Lau said, but at the same time the UMNO president was also being somewhat pragmatic, keeping in mind that he needed candidates who could win.
“Zahid is clearly cutting off those who did not support him but yet he did not dare to cut everyone off, so those who are not that extreme they will still be there but those who are extreme … are cut off,” Lau said.
“Winning seats is still important to Zahid. The reason being that he at one time openly said his court case depends on who wins. So, I do not think he will sacrifice seats just for the sake of sacrificing them.”
Zahid is currently standing trial in a case in which he faces 47 criminal charges related to the alleged misappropriation of 52.25 million ringgit (U.S. $11.42 million) from his family-owned foundation that was set up to help poor people.
Critics have alleged that Zahid wanted to call elections early – unlike Ismail Sabri – because he wanted UMNO back in power swiftly so the government could influence his case. The trial has been postponed until January, pending a defense appeal on a ruling about witness testimony.
“If Barisan is able to win big with a two third majority, or 150 seats and above, do not be surprised if Ahmad Zahid becomes PM. But if they win with a slim majority, he may not,” Lau said.
‘Sabotage and retaliate’
Some analysts believe, however, that Zahid’s machinations with the candidates list could cost UMNO votes.
That’s because those have been dropped are “big and influential figures,” said Jeniri Amir, a senior fellow at the Malaysian Council of Professors.
According to another academic, the axed leaders could try to sabotage their replacements’ candidacy, or contest as independent candidates, or under other parties’ tickets.
“When these dropped candidates opt to sabotage and retaliate against the party, UMNO may and will lose votes from their own supporters,” said Mohd. Azizuddin Mohd Sani, a politics professor at Universiti Utara Malaysia.
Federal Territories Minister Shahidan, who was among the officials cut from the list, has already said he would be defending his parliamentary seat in Perlis, which he has won four times in the past.
He has also urged Zahid to resign from his post as UMNO president so Ismail Sabri can take over.
He said: “Barisan Nasional can recover if Zahid stops and does not contest in the general election.”
But on Wednesday, the UMNO president defended his candidate selection in a social media post.
He said the decision to field many new faces for the upcoming polls was because about 50 percent of the country’s electorate in the upcoming election comprised voters below the age of 39.
“Those who have been elected representatives for a long time should give a chance to the younger generation [to contest],” Zahid said on Facebook.
“When the time has come for them [the older generation] to not be picked [to contest], they should accept the decision with a big heart.”